Our belief-systems are deceptive and misleading. Like when we try to remember a dream — we remember an image here or a sensation there, but in retelling the dreams, we fill in any existing blanks retrospectively. And inaccurately — even possibly without realizing it. We participate unwittingly in the re-creation of a dream and then obligingly feed it back to ourselves, believing it even in the midst of the process of creating it.
But our religious belief-systems function the same way. We understand (or think we understand) bits and pieces of some spiritual truth (or theological system) but when we go about telling what we “understand” to another, we fill in any existing blanks retrospectively. And inaccurately — and, yes, even possibly without realizing it! We participate unwittingly in the re-creation of a spurious “truth” and then obligingly feed it back not only to ourselves but with the greatest confidence, to others. We believe our own imperfect religious or theological reconstructions even as we process the ideas in speaking or writing to others. And depending on the eternal significance of these variously mangled “spiritual truths”, we have defrauded not only others but more fundamentally, even our own selves — potentially to our doom.
And — and I say this as an incorrigible and incurable teacher and blogger of spiritual matters — the preachers, theologians, and Sunday School teachers who create these spiritual “truths” do not actually know how much of their content is true. In other words, they are victims of their own product, along with whoever is listening to them. Speaking for myself, I don’t know how much of my own spiritual speculations are true — or which parts (if any) are true.
This is a spiritually lethal state of affairs. We have imaginations posing as truth, and truth which (more often than one would suppose) posing as mere fiction. For example: novels such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, or even William P. Young’s The Shack aren’t written as theology or spiritual texts, but often contain a great deal more spiritual truth than books intended to be “spiritual instruction”.
Between spurious imaginations posing as truth, and truth posing as mere fiction, we have a significant overlap — dangerously blurred lines. And it’s probably not deliberate. In fact, that’s part of the problem. Despite the Catholic Church (for example) depending on stamping their spiritual writings with nihil obstat and imprimatur, there is no person or group which can truly demand an author accurately promise that what a book contains “is free of doctrinal or moral error”; one cannot compel a teacher of spiritual matters to “declare” what part is “true” and what “isn’t true” when not even the author knows the difference!
Being able to tell what sources are spiritually “safe” for consumption — be they sermons, books, home Bible studies, movies, novels, devotionals, journals, dairies, conversations over coffee at Starbuck’s or whatever — simply can not be determined by the apparent “certificates of authority” a person has (degrees from seminaries, denominational licensing, and the like.) Nor can a person determine a spiritually “safe” source based on one’s “feelings” or even a trusted person’s recommendations.
Are Believers, thus, “lost” in respect to deciding what to believe or whom to listen to? Not at all. This situation is well-covered by both Jesus’ teachings and that of the Apostles. Jesus promised that, upon His Ascension to be seated at the right hand of His Father in the heavenlies, He would send the Holy Spirit — “poured out upon all the earth” — and one of the Spirit’s “tasks” is to lead Jesus’ followers into “all truth”.
This idea wars against the traditional position of churches. Church leaders have attempted to consolidate all authority to teach “spiritual things” to themselves and to a small group of men authorized to do such teaching. Call them “theologians”, “pastors”, “teachers”, or even “prophets” — these men still place themselves as intermediaries between God and each Believer, whereas Jesus’ plan was for the Spirit within each Believer be that Teacher. Paul uses this same idea in his letter to Ephesus when he reminds the Believers there that they had not learned certain false teachings from Christ, “if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus.” Paul’s assumption is that each person he addresses — through the Holy Spirit poured out into all the world by Jesus — is still being taught by Jesus via the Spirit.
John makes this very clear as he himself reminds his “little children” that their true “spiritual teacher” is the Holy Spirit dwelling within each one of them. When faced by traveling teachers trying to seduce them spiritually (teaching falsely that the Antichrist was coming), John not only rejected the Great “Antichrist” teaching (“even now many anti-christs have already come”), John reminded them that “the Anointing which you all received from Christ now dwells within you, and none of you need for any man to teach you — but the same Anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie; and even as the Anointing has taught you, all of you shall continue to abide in Him.”
When no one person can even know how much of the spiritual speculations they hear are true — or which parts (if any) are true — there’s but one Place of Spiritual Safety — and this Place lies within each Believer: trust that the Holy Spirit is the One Whose “task” it is to keep you safe from those who would “seduce” you spiritually, and have a simple confidence that He Who has begun His good work in you, is the One Who will continue it until the eschaton — the Day of the Lord!